Remembering the Founder of Famed Jerusalem Literary Café

David Erhrlich, who founded cultural hub that hosted writers, poets and intellectuals in 1994, suffers fatal heart attack. He was 61

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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David Ehrlich at his bookstore 'Tmol Shilshom'
David Ehrlich at his bookstore 'Tmol Shilshom'Credit: Rafi Koots
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

David Ehrlich, an author, journalist and founder of the Jerusalem coffeehouse and bookstore Tmol Shilshom, died suddenly on Sunday at the age of 61.

The cause of his death is thought to be a heart attack.

David Ehrlich at his literary café Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem.
David Ehrlich at his literary café Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem.Credit: Rafi Koots

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70

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Ehrlich, born in Givatayim, worked as a journalist for both Haaretz and the defunct Davar. In 1994, together with his partner Dan Goldberg, he opened Tmol Shilshom in a historic building on Nahalat Shiva Street in downtown Jerusalem. It quickly became a key spot in the city’s nightlife and cultural activity.

Ehrlich sponsored hundreds of evenings at the café, hosting writers, poets and intellectuals. The first poet to read at Tmol Shilshom was Yehuda Amichai. Other regular guests included David Grossman, Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld.

Italian author Erri De Luca, a friend of Ehrlich’s, was hosted at the café and even wrote a poem that was first published on a placemat there. The café’s placemats, which Ehrlich designed, were artworks in their own right, and hundreds of them became famous through poems, stories, paintings and news articles.

On the list of must-see sites in Jerusalem published by the travel guide Let’s Go, Tmol Shilshom was ranked third, just below the Western Wall.

Ehrlich published two volumes of short stories in Hebrew – “Monday and Thursday Mornings” (1999) and “Blue 18” (2003). Two years ago, he published the novel “Café Shira” (2018), which was based on his own experiences at Tmol Shilshom. He was working on a new novel when he died.

Ehrlich and Tmol Shilshom were phenomena that would have been impossible anywhere but Jerusalem. On one hand, he was a member of the LGBTQ community who never hid his sexual identity and served on the board of the Jerusalem Open House, an LGBTQ organization. Yet at the same time, Tmol Shilshom was a kosher café that closed on Shabbat and was known as a favorite site for religious people on their first date.

Ehrlich was proud of the dozens of weddings that emerged from dates at his café and even edited a book that recounted the stories of some of these relationships, called “The Love Book of Tmol Shilshom.”

When asked about this seeming discrepancy in an interview with the GoGay website, he replied, “It’s an interesting question. I hope someone will write a doctoral thesis about this someday. I don’t know. For years, every Thursday evening, religious young men would come to us to study Talmud. I assumed they didn’t know about the place’s gay connection, until I eventually discovered that they called the place, with equanimity and affection, ‘Gay-henna’” – a play on Gehenna, which is the Talmudic equivalent of hell.

Ehrlich and Goldberg were also very identified with the battle to preserve cultural life in downtown Jerusalem. From its opening 26 years ago until the coronavirus crisis began, Tmol Shilshom never closed – not even at the height of the second intifada.

“We never closed the restaurant,” Goldberg said. “Every terror attack, it didn’t matter what, the restaurant was open. Even during the big snowstorm, we dug it out with shovels and opened.”

Thus the forced closure due to the coronavirus upset Ehrlich greatly, he said. “Just recently, we had begun to see rosy skies. There were tons of tourists and tons of groups, and we had just renovated. But when a business closes, it collapses in days. For them, it’s almost like announcing that they’re closing permanently.

“But now, I can’t let the coronavirus win,” Goldberg added. “His soul is there.”

Tamar Baum, who was Ehrlich’s friend and his partner in parenting 12-year-old twins, said Ehrlich “took things hard. He took upon himself the concern and responsibility for others; he had the kind of soul that cares for everyone.

“There were ups and downs, and now of all times, when they suddenly closed the business, he could rest,” she continued. “But on the other hand, the tension over what would be with the workers and what would be with the business affected him. Sometimes the body feels that it has to fight, so it survives. But when you stop fighting, then the body says I can’t do it anymore.”

“He was a very great man, but a very modest one,” Baum added. “He loved Jerusalem very much; he retained a love for the city from his childhood, from the two years when they lived here. He returned to Jerusalem. He was always forging more ties. He was truly a people person.”

Ehrlich is survived by his parents, his sister, Baum and their two children. Because of the pandemic, a low-profile funeral was held Monday at the Rehovot cemetery.

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